Unicoi County officials want sinkhole risks assessed

Brad Hicks • Mar 25, 2013 at 10:27 AM

ERWIN — Linda Purchase said she bought her home in the Love Chapel community around 10 years ago with the intent of remaining there for the rest of her life.

But, like others in the area, Purchase is concerned about sinkhole activity in the community. Just outside Purchase’s front door is a reminder of the impact sinkholes have already had on the community — the now-closed Love Chapel Elementary School.

“I mean, I don’t spend every minute worrying about it, but I am concerned,” Purchase said.

The sinkhole issue is also concerning to county officials. At tonight’s meeting of the Unicoi County Commission, Commissioner Doug Bowman said he and Commission Chairman Mickey Hatcher intend to seek approval from the commission to make a formal request that the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency study the Love Chapel area to assess the risk of other sinkholes developing the community.

Two much-publicized sinkholes have opened in the Love Chapel area since late 2011. In December 2011, a large sinkhole opened under a swimming pool at a residence on Bradshaw Woods Road. In August, a sinkhole was discovered on the grounds of the school, which led to the quick relocation of its students and staff and contributed to the school’s eventual closure.

In December, the Unicoi County Board of Education hired engineering firm HSA Engineers & Scientists to conduct testing on various areas of the school property before deciding upon its fate. These tests revealed four areas on the property showed signs of sinkhole activity and two others were shown to be in the process of developing sinkhole activity. The board voted to close the school in February.

“It’s hard to believe they stop at the property line,” Bowman said. “So, we’re just trying to help the taxpayers and the homeowners. It’s a devastating blow to the county, and there’s no chance of returning the students, as far as I’m concerned, to a known danger. It’s just not an option to use that school building anymore.”

Bowman said if federal and state agencies study the area and declare it a disaster area, it could lead to disaster relief funding in the form of grants, low-interest loans or interest-free loans becoming available to help the county for the loss of the school. Disaster relief funding also could be used by property owners to assist them with property value losses or possibe relocation costs.

Aside from the closure of Love Chapel, Bowman said the sinkhole issue is having other impacts.

“There was a potential subdivision development next door that was about to happen, but probably will not,” Bowman said.

Purchase said the loss of property value and safety of those in the community is concerning, adding that she agrees the Love Chapel community as a whole should be studied for sinkhole activity.

“I love the area,” Purchase said, “but I’d hate for something to happen and me not be aware so I can get the heck out of Dodge.”

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